Thursday, October 6, 2011
I seem to be getting into the genre du jour, which is steampunk, at present. Over the past month or so I’ve read Devon Monk’s Dead Iron: The Age of Steam and Phil & Kaja Folio’s Agatha H. and the Airship City, both of which are classified as steampunk and now, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’ Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel.
Because it’s referred to as A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel I had to check before purchasing it to see if it was in fact the first of the series, which thankfully it is. It’s a steampunk romp set in late 19th century England with two fun leads: the phlegmatic and aptly named very British archivist; Wellington Thornhill Books, Esq, and the fiery New Zealand born field agent with a penchant for black powder and dynamite; Eliza Braun. The fact that one of the leads was a Kiwi was delightfully refreshing, but given that one of the authors; Pip Ballantine, is also from the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, not all that surprising. I find when authors not from the antipodes try to do characters from the southern hemisphere they come out somehow wrong. Pip has got Eliza spot on. I wasn’t totally happy that she cast the Aussie agent; Bruce Campbell (I think the name is coincidental and not really a dig at the legendary B actor, although he’s probably called Bruce as ever since the famous Monty Python ‘philosopher’ sketch, the name has been seen as quintessentially Australian. Despite that I’ve only ever known one Bruce in my entire life), as a bit of a villain.
This action packed story opens with Books being held somewhere in the wilds of Antarctica, presumably by the Ministry’s arch enemy; the sinister House of Usher, that’s about when Braun enters with guns blazing, and rescues him. The opening introduces the heroine and hero, sets the tone for their relationship and indicates that the reader had better strap in and hold on, because it does not let up from that point on. If anything, it gets crazier and funnier.
Back in the Motherland, Braun is banished to the Archives, because her tendency to blow things up brings more than it’s unwanted share of attention in the direction of the Ministry. The Ministry’s Archives are Books’ domain, and before long the two are striking sparks off each other and investigating the circumstances that threw them together in the first place.
What they uncover is an ancient and ruthless secret society that will stop at nothing to seize the power held by the British throne. The whole investigation is complicated by the fact that the two agents feel that they need to keep their investigation a secret from even their own superiors. This of course means that when they do take on the Phoenix Society they’re on their own and this adds a whole new level of danger.
The entire affair was a huge amount of fun and there’s definite chemistry between Wellington Books and Eliza Braun. Both leads have long and deep personal histories, which will be fascinating to learn more about as hopefully more Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books are released.
Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris have borrowed liberally from other novels of the age. There’s more than a hint of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the Phoenix Society’s mechanical warriors, and Eliza Braun’s task force of street urchins; The Ministry Seven, have a direct analog in Sherlock Holmes Baker Street Irregulars. I got flashes of Warehouse 13 from the Archive scenes and other reviews have compared the duo to 60’s cult spy TV show The Avengers, so the books could make a decent TV show. Steampunk is one area they haven't yet explored properly.
I really enjoyed reading Phoenix Rising and hope we get to see more of Books and Braun agents of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.